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Early results show PRI with huge lead over opponents

MEXICO CITY—The party that governed Mexico for 71 years won a strong victory Sunday in the country's largest state, regarded as a gauge of political preferences for next year's presidential elections, according to early unofficial results.

While victories in Mexico State and in the western state of Nayarit would bolster the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, it doesn't necessarily guarantee the party's return to the presidency it lost in 2000 to Vicente Fox, of the conservative National Action Party (PAN).

The PRI and PAN'S potential candidates all trail Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in the presidential polls for 2006.

After balloting ended at 6 p.m. local time, exit polls by national broadcasters Televisa, TV Azteca and Radio Centro and the consultancy pollster group Mitofsky showed the PRI's Enrique Pena Nieto had won with about half the vote in Mexico State. The PRI's two opponents were each 20 percentage points or more behind Pena, who had a 48 to 50 percent advantage.

Early official results were to be divulged Monday by the states' Electoral Institute, an independent organ in charge of overseeing elections. But the PRI's wide early lead would be hard to dispute, even though the other parties had vowed to challenge.

The state of Mexico is viewed by pundits as a barometer of political preferences because it's the country's largest and the backyard of the metropolis of Mexico City. Nine million of its 14 million people were eligible to vote in the gubernatorial race. But there was low voter turnout, with only 50 percent or less casting ballots in the state, showing voter apathy and casting a shadow over the PRI's apparent triumph.

"It was an exemplary and peaceful election," said outgoing Mexico state PRI governor Arturo Montiel said in a televised address claiming the PRI's triumph. "We should be proud of our legitimate victory and respectful of the hard fight and campaign our opponents gave us."

According to the polls, Pena had a major lead over Ruben Mendoza, of Fox's party, and over Yeidckol Polevnsky, of Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador's left-leaning Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD. Polls showed Fox's and the mayor's parties were in a technical tie, both winning 24 and 25 percent of the vote.

The PRI also was expected to retake the Pacific Coast state of Nayarit, where 650,000 of nearly 1 million people were registered to vote for governor, 20 mayoral races and 20 state congressional seats. But Sunday evening the polls showed the PRI and PAN gubernatorial candidates were tied at about 45 percent of the vote.

The wins could enhance the PRI's chances for the 2006 presidential elections. The party, which often is accused of keeping its hold on the nation through fraud and bullying, was bumped from power for the first time since 1929, when Fox trounced the longtime faction on July 2, 2000.

Fox's election is regarded as Mexico's first real democracy. But voters have become disillusioned over the Fox administration's inability to pass reforms in a PRI-dominated Congress to end poverty, crime and corruption.

"The PAN hasn't been able to honor its commitments with society. Where are the one million new jobs promised every year? Where's the 7 percent annual economic growth?" said Roberto Madrazo, the powerful PRI leader who will likely win his party's presidential nomination in July.

The PRI, with an expert vote-getting machine, controls unions and rural communities with the backing of some of the nation's most powerful wealthy leaders and political elites.

But observers predicted a low-voter turnout to replace outgoing Gov. Arturo Montiel, also a presidential hopeful, who's formed an alliance against a Madrazo candidacy.

While long lines of people lined up early when 15,000 balloting places opened at 8 a.m. local time, the crowds diminished greatly by early afternoon. "In today's elections, we will see everything but voters," read an editorial in the Mexico City daily Reforma Sunday.

The elections are monitored by the independent Electoral Institutes of both states. But because of reported PRI irregularities, there were expectations the two other parties would ask electoral officials to void the elections.

Pena Nieto, who turns 39 this month, ran under a coalition of the PRI and the Green Party. His campaign was loaded with promises of public works and fighting crime. The PRI banked on his youth and handsome looks to give the party a new image.

"Pena shows a new PRI. We're sick of (the PRI's) dinosaurs, said Silverio Caballero, a PRI voting observer in the municipality of Naucalapan, speaking of the party's die-hard authoritarian rulers.

Even if the PRI wins in Mexico, it may not be enough to derail the popularity of Lopez Obrador, who has been consistently ahead in polls over the two other main presidential contenders in an already politically arduous campaign. The other main contender for 2006 is ex- Interior Minister Santiago Creel, viewed as Fox's choice.

But the presidential contest is shaping up as a bitter fight between Madrazo and nemesis Lopez Obrador, whom Madrazo beat in the 1994 state race at their home state of Tabasco.

Both are trying to exploit the popular disenchantment with Fox.

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(Knight Ridder researcher Janet Schwartz contributed with this report.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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